Marc Andreessen is a giant in the world of technology. He is variously known as the developer of one of the world’s earliest web browsers, founder of Netscape, or as the founding partner of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. He is also one of the best known names in Silicon Valley. On February 10, however, many in India would hear of him for the first time.
A couple of days after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) barred discriminatory pricing of data services in the country, Andreessen responded to a tweet on the resultant ban on Facebook’s Free Basics, saying: “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”
His tweet was met with a visceral response from Indian Twitter users and soon made national headlines, with Andreessen being referred to as a ‘Facebook official’ by some.
Now, Andreessen’s firm was one of Facebook’s early investors, and he does sit on the company’s board. The headline then wasn’t completely inaccurate. But the intensity of the reaction to the misguided tweet symbolises something more significant: In Indian discourse, at least for now, the words Free Basics have become toxic.
Free Basics is Facebook’s attempt to offer free access to basic internet services and thereby connect more people to the world wide web. Earlier in 2015, in a similar effort, the company had launched a service titled Internet.org in India. This was part of Facebook’s larger effort to connect the world.
Internet.org, however, was rebranded after strong opposition. The new avatar, Free Basics, according to Facebook, was “open to any developer and any application that meets basic technical requirements” unlike the limited suite of offerings on the earlier version.
As of now, however, the ruling on the matter of differential pricing, for which Trai had initiated a consultation paper in December, puts a halt to any such plans in the country. On February 8, the regulator said: “The Authority has taken a view that prohibition of discriminatory tariff for data services is necessary to ensure that service providers continue to fulfil their obligations in keeping the internet open and non-discriminatory.”
The ruling, which came into immediate effect, will also affect telecom operators who provide data packs giving access to certain services. They have been given six months to phase out their plans. Free Basics and other zero-rated services like it are prohibited under the new rules.
“The regulations are clear: If telecom companies, either by themselves, or in arrangement with another player, have packages where they choose what content can be consumed and they market that service, that is not acceptable,” explains Raman Jit Singh Chima, global policy director of Access Now, a digital rights advocacy group. Chima is also a member of Save the Internet (STI), a collective of entrepreneurs and professionals who have been actively campaigning for Net Neutrality—the principle that all websites should be equally accessible. The coalition had led the campaign against Facebook’s Internet.org earlier in 2015.
STI and other such critics of Free Basics have won a hard-fought battle, which had become increasingly loud after December 23 last year, when Trai asked Reliance Communications, Facebook’s telecom partner for Free Basics in India, to suspend the service.
That was when Facebook began a sustained publicity campaign in support of Free Basics. Advertisements appeared across the media, from newspapers to digital platforms. A report in financial daily Mint estimated that Facebook had spent close to Rs 300 crore on the effort. “They went overboard on that,” believes KV Sridhar, ad guru and chief creative officer, India, at SapientNitro. Facebook urged its over-130 million users in India to support Free Basics. In an appeal, Facebook claimed: “A small, vocal group of critics are lobbying to have Free Basics banned on the basis of Net Neutrality.”
But Facebook’s massive expenditure on advertising only made its case seem more disingenuous. By late January, despite millions of responses from its users, all the social media giant really had to show for the effort was an angry letter from Trai. The letter claimed that the templatised responses of Facebook users sent to it (in response to the invitation for comments and opinions) were “tangential” since they did not answer the core question about differential pricing. The users had simply said that they supported Free Basics. The letter, posted on the regulator’s website, also went on to chide Facebook for its “self-appointed spokesmanship on behalf of those who have sent responses to Trai using your platform”. Facebook replied through a statement claiming that it was being singled out.
(This story appears in the 04 March, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)